Crafting protection: India’s artisanal heritage and intellectual property

Simplifying IP processes and providing legal support are the pathways to ensuring India’s artisanal treasures thrive, write Remfry & Sagar lawyers Bisman Kaur and Radha Khera

The Indian handicraft sector produces approximately $3bn annually JGA

India’s tapestry of crafts epitomises its cultural riches. From delicate textiles to exquisite jewellery; from myriad types of pottery to delicate wood carvings; from vibrant tribal art to marvellous miniatures; from artistic metalware to ‘jail’ carpets, artisans across the nation have perfected their crafts over centuries. 

These crafts are finding increasing appreciation for the nature of skill involved. Also, they showcase a harmonious relationship between humans, nature, culture and the economy. Through resource conservation, use of natural raw materials and dyes, and the passing on of traditional knowledge regarding preservation and longevity, handicrafts inherently tend towards sustainability and their eco-friendly traits are augmenting their popularity. Today, three-quarters of all handicraft items produced in India are exported to more than a hundred countries.

Crafts are an expression of the human spirit in material form Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, chair of post-independence India’s craft council

With a workforce second only to agriculture, the Indian handicraft and handloom sector was valued by the Indian government at an equivalent of around $3bn in FY 2020-21. Since the business of handicrafts lies both within the bounds of the formal economy and outside it – it is conducted through online retail and organised craft fairs as well as tourist market stalls and doorstep sales – this valuation may be a conservative one. Further, in 2021-22, Indian handicraft exports were valued at $4.35bn, a 25.7% increase from the previous year. Globally, the creative manufacturing and handmade sector was valued at $700bn in 2022 and is expected to rise to $1tr by 2024. 

The implication is that the growth potential of the Indian handicrafts sector is huge. To realise it, a number of factors must coalesce – the upskilling and reskilling of artisans to preserve dying crafts, improvement of market linkages, increase in financial support for micro-entrepreneurs, training artisans to marry their craftsmanship to modern sensibilities to add value, and the protection of intellectual property rights.
Addressing challenges 
On 17 September, the Indian government launched the PM Vishwakarma Scheme. ‘Vishwakarma’ is considered the patron deity of workers, artisans and artists, and the scheme is set to support three million families in both rural and urban India. Initially, 18 traditional trades will be covered with the aim of improving the quality as well as the reach of craft products through integration with domestic and global value chains. Beneficiaries will be eligible for an interest free loan of INR100,000 (about $1,200) to be repaid in 18 months, post which they would be eligible for a loan of INR200,000 at a concessional interest rate of 5%. For skill development, the scheme includes a five-day training workshop with a daily stipend as well as a voucher of INR15,000 for toolkits. The government will oversee and verify the enrolment of beneficiaries at the village, district and state level to ensure proper reach and coverage of the scheme. A toolkit booklet has also been released in 12 Indian languages, with accompanying video elements, to educate artisans on new technologies in their field.
The Vishwakarma scheme augments existing government policies. Prominent examples include the ‘Pahchan’ initiative under which artisans are provided an identity card to easily avail government benefits and subsidies including life insurance policies. A digital marketing portal allowing artisans registered under the ‘Pahchan’ scheme to directly market their handicrafts is also available. Under the aegis of the 2001 Ambedkar Hastshilp Vikas Yojana, artists are encouraged to unite into self-help groups and societies to scale production and save costs in acquiring raw materials. The Mega Cluster Scheme aims to assist employment creation and improve the standard of living of artisans by using a cluster-based strategy to scale infrastructure at handicraft centres, particularly in rural areas. The Marketing Support and Services Scheme offers artists financial assistance to attend domestic and international marketing events and trade shows. In parallel, the Research and Development Scheme has been enacted to collect data on artisans and their crafts to monitor the progress of welfare programmes. 
In the private sector space, there is a vibrant market demand for craft products and numerous NGOs transform public policies into grassroots actions. 
An interesting case in point is craft NGO Dastkar’s (in collaboration with SEWA) design and marketing intervention with women practicing ‘chikan’ embroidery. Chikan is a centuries-old craft of white-on-white embroidery with a strong design and motif tradition practiced by a large urban community in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. In 1986, Dastkar began working with close to 100 women. At that time, a chikan embroidered kurta was actually crudely embroidered shadow-work – something that people wore to bed. In its place, women were trained to work on complex combinations of knotted, pulled, under and over-laid stitches that comprise genuine chikan embroidery. Two decades later, the number of embroiderers associated with the intervention had swelled to 7,500 with a turnover running into millions of rupees. Meanwhile, traders and designers began showing a strong interest in the craft and today, chikan embroidery is regularly seen on the finest couture garments in India. However, the success of chikan has also led to its bulk production with Dastkar itself noting that market glut may make the craft downmarket again. It has advocated another re-invention – diversifying products, styles, designs, motifs and markets.
A different model is that of an agreement signed between the state government of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Flipkart, a leading e-commerce site in India, in 2022 to bring the state’s handicraft products on Flipkart’s platform. Flipkart will train craftsmen as part of the initiative, while the UP government will organise camps to give subsidies on loans to weavers.
Thus, a promising ecosystem exists for artisans to tap into and grow their craft and income. However, the diffusion of awareness of various schemes in rural areas is perhaps not optimal and deserves focused attention. Overall, the need is for a sustained dialogue and interaction with artisans emphasising purposeful products development and conformity with high quality standards. 
When inspiration becomes appropriation
Financial challenges aside, the bigger existential threat faced by artisans is perhaps that of unauthorised imitation and misappropriation. 
Christian Dior’s pre-fall 2023 show in Mumbai was a wonderful example of appreciation. Dior used motifs and traditional embroideries integral to Indian handicraft traditions in its show and highlighted the role and contribution of Indian artisans. Post-show releases also educated Dior’s customers about these embroideries, their names and the processes that went into making them. 
However, there are many examples of designers ‘borrowing’ ideas and crafts without attributing the source. Intellectual property (IP) rights can be a critical tool in arresting such misappropriation. 
As explained in a WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) paper titled ‘Intellectual Property and Traditional Handicraft’, from an IP perspective, handicrafts can have three distinct components: 

  • Reputation – derived from their style, origin or quality; 
  • External appearance – their shape and design; and
  • Know-how – the skills and knowledge used to create and make them. 

Know-how, for example, can be protected by patents or as a trade secret. Patents are also relevant where an artisan has substantially improved an earlier process (a method of dyeing) or invented a new one capable of industrial application (functional improvement to a loom or kiln). External appearances of product can be protected by industrial designs or copyright; the latter also protects artistic expressions such as paintings. Reputation may be protected by trademarks (including certification marks), geographical indications or unfair competition law. 
Registering a trademark and then using it in the market is an effective way of increasing consumer recognition and recall of authentic handicrafts; in such manner, a brand name can add a lot of commercial value to popular products. An owner of a registered mark can also prevent others from using or registering an identical or confusingly similar mark for identical or similar goods or services. 
Often artisans can benefit from the use of certification trademarks that instantly convey to the public that the product in question comes with a certain minimum standard of quality. A certification trademark is owned by an independent organisation that itself does not trade in those goods or provide the services. Rather, its primary role is that of guaranteeing quality which it fulfils by first examining third party products and services and then permitting use of the certification mark upon their goods if they meet specified benchmarks. An apt example is ‘Craftmark’ that authenticates genuine hand-crafted processes from India. More than 250 craft enterprises – with an outreach of about 165,000 artisans across India – use ‘Craftmark’ in the country today. 
Another route to IP protection is through the registration of Geographical Indications (GIs). A geographical indication is a sign that can be used on goods with a specific geographical origin and possessing qualities, reputation or characteristics that are essentially attributable to that place of origin. It is a collective right held by stakeholders – including artisans – and currently, 484 GIs are registered in the country of which close to 55% pertain to handicrafts. 
GI tags are a seal of quality and allow easy identification of genuine handicrafts which attracts consumers and, in the long run, leads to expansion of markets and profits for GI holders. Consider the example of Pochampally Ikat. Resist dyeing techniques, in which the threads are tie-dyed before they are woven into fabric, are used to create colourful ikat textiles featuring intricate, geometric patterns. This was one of the first handicrafts to obtain registration under the GI Act when it was introduced in 2003. In 2021, the Pochampally Handloom Weavers Co-operative Society entered into a strategic collaboration with one of India’s largest retail brands, Aditya Birla Fashion, to introduce ikat into the latter’s men’s work-wear line by adapting traditional patterns to western cuts and silhouettes.
GI protection also enables right holders to take legal action to block imitators and counterfeiters whose similar products do not come from the defined area or do not possess the requisite quality or characteristics.

That said, despite numerous GI registrations, the GI statute has not, by itself, been able to stunt fake merchandise or enrich artisan communities optimally. The biggest issue is that of quality control. Inspection structures throughout the supply chain must be made more robust and artisans need to be educated more strongly on how vital quality is for the success of a GI tag. Mechanisms, including financial structures for GI communities, to address counterfeiting in the market are also required to ensure effective enforcement of rights.
The way forward

In the intricate world of craftsmanship, IP emerges as the guardian of creativity and tradition. Simplifying IP processes, raising awareness, and providing legal support are the pathways to ensuring India’s artisanal treasures thrive, securing both heritage and livelihoods. Comprehensive programmes to educate artisans about IP rights and assisting with application processes through legal clinics is essential. For its part, in 2019, the government introduced a relaxation in IP filing fees for MSMEs (micro, small and medium-sized enterprises). This included reducing the fee required to file a patent by 60% and trademark by 50%. It has also empanelled facilitators that would help applicants with the registration process for a fixed, reasonable service fee.
To ensure that the keepers of the country’s rich traditions thrive in the modern era, collective efforts must be made to identify their challenges and craft effective solutions. 

Bisman Kaur is trademark attorney at Remfry & Sagar, with extensive experience in advising clients on the adoption and protection of brand names with strong knowledge of the finer nuances of assignment and licensing of trademark rights. She also leads the firm’s media outreach, communications and publishing activities. She can be reached at [email protected]

Remfry & Sagar managing associate Radha Khera is an intellectual property, media and fashion lawyer with more than a decade of experience. She is a trained fashion lawyer, having completed her second-level masters in fashion law from Luiss Guido Carli in Rome. Radha is on the editorial board of the Fashion Law Journal and a legal researcher at the Thinking Watermill Society, an Italian non-profit organisation. She can be reached at [email protected].

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